News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

PacifiCorp seeking reduced damages after insurer settlement

PacifiCorp is arguing it should not pay full damages in a wildfire lawsuit after it settled with related insurance companies. Plaintiffs want the court to make these settlement records public.

On Oct. 13, parties in James et al vs. PacifiCorp will argue in Multnomah County Circuit Court whether or not the company should avoid paying $4.4 million out of a $90 million verdict.

The judgment was awarded June 12 to 17 plaintiffs after a jury found PacifiCorp liable for causing the Santiam, South Obenchain, Echo Mountain and 242 fires on Labor Day 2020.

PacifiCorp argues this verdict was unlawful and a separate hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9 to consider potentially setting aside the jury’s decision or declaring a mistrial.

PacifiCorp said in an Aug. 28 motion it had settled in May with the insurance providers of six of these plaintiffs, whose economic damages totaled $4.4 million. 

The settled cases include Allstate et al. v. PacifiCorp and 21st Century Centennial et al. v. PacifiCorp, both filed in 2022 in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Plaintiff attorneys for James et al. noted the settlement occurred while their trial was ongoing and PacifiCorp made no effort to inform the court or class members. 

At issue is a state law which allows insurance companies who have paid claims to a client to seek compensation for those payouts as though the client’s losses were their own. PacifiCorp said this means settling with the insurance companies was legally the same as settling with individual plaintiffs and the company cannot be forced to pay twice for the same losses.

“PacifiCorp’s settlement resolved 100 percent of the claims that (insurance companies) brought against PacifiCorp, so PacifiCorp should be entitled to deduct the full value of those claims from the jury award,” said the motion.

In a Sept. 14 filing, plaintiff attorneys argued PacifiCorp did not settle for specific damages but agreed to a lump sum covering insurance company losses in general. Even if the settlement applied to specific claims, they said, PacifiCorp paid “pennies on the dollar” and is not entitled to offset full damages.

The settlement agreement remains under seal and plaintiffs asked for the document to be filed in the public record, arguing it impacts thousands of class members and is of general public interest. They said none of the 191 insurance companies involved in the settlement objected to the request, and PacifiCorp’s Aug. 28 motion made the document central to the case.

PacifiCorp claims the settlement agreement contains highly-sensitive information including personal financial records and potential trade secrets. They also said the agreement gave PacifiCorp discretion over publishing the document and they are limiting access to plaintiff attorneys and individuals with claims impacted by the settlement.

Meanwhile, Phase II of James et al. progresses and 20 individual claims have been filed for bellwether trials scheduled on Jan. 8 and Feb. 26, 2024. Claims total $59 million in economic damages and $500 million in noneconomic damages, and the outcomes of the trials are meant to help set a standard for future trials or settlements.

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